Barbara was considerate enough that she didn’t send the courier before morning stretched into lunchtime. She watched, through the cam she’d put in front of Kate Kane’s door, as Kate emerged, her hair pulled into a hasty ponytail, listened to the courier in sleepy confusion, and signed the receipt.
She didn’t open the long, thin box on her doorstep; you learned that lesson after you’d opened your first sex toy joke gift in front of your less worldly roommates. It was okay with Barbara, she just needed to switch cameras.
The second view-point was less comfortable, only framing half of Kate’s kitchen and sink. The angle included the better part of her kitchen table, though, so all in all it was still a pretty decent shot.
It would’ve been immeasurably more practical if she’d had cameras inside Kate’s home, but the thing with Helena way back when taught Barbara to be careful with new allies and potential assets and wait before snaring them in her web of constant surveillance and/or manipulations. (This was the honest answer, which only Bruce, Tim and Cass were entitled to know, if only because none of them asked. Everyone else would get the breezy reason that she was trying to cut back, on the grounds that they might judge it non-creepy.)
In this case, mediocre settings paid. In the corner of the screen, the rectangular box was flipped open, and the mike laid inside picked up the sound of tissue paper rustling. More rustling, then Kate spoke up.
“Well, if it isn’t more flowers from Oracle.” Her tone was dry, but not unamused.
Respecting her interlocutor’s sleeping pattern had been a good decision.
“Hello, Kate,” she replied. The distortion level she used when addressing Batwoman was less high than her usual, for reasons Barbara didn’t care to dwell on but which mostly revolved around needing new capes in Gotham to trust her, as long as the cost wasn’t her actual identity. That it also made flirting a good deal less one-sided was a pleasant side benefit.
“I see your flower de choix is the red rose once again. Lack of imagination, or attempted seduction?”
Babs smiled. She wished she could gave other viewpoints on Kate’s apartment; the earring mike carried Kate’s voice over perfectly - perfectly enough that if Babs put on her own headset, it would be as though Kate was speaking directly against her ear - but Babs had to tune down its quality regarding surrounding noises, else her transmissions with her agents would be forever garbled with noise pollution. She only heard a tap being turned, then closed again; probably water for the rose.
Babs amused herself with picturing the scene. Was Kate more likely to choose an ordinary vase or a stem vase? Did she even have any at hand, or would she recuperate an empty bottle of vodka? Her information regarding Batwoman’s decorating tastes was sorely remiss.
“I won’t say anything regarding the latter, but red roses are simply my signature when I contact potential agents.”
“Is that what I am?”
“Well. Ally,” Barbara offered. Give and take; to and fro. Batwoman hadn’t taken Oracle up on her original offer to join the Birds of Prey, but neither had she thrown her first comlink earring and the complimentary bouquet into the trash.
“Is that all the reason for the flower? I thought we’d agreed on that. Not that the new earring isn’t snazzy,” she said, with a tink that reverberated into rasping, probably flicking the pendant.
Babs grimaced out of habit, but the hissing was lesser than it used to be. The improvement was long overdue, really; maybe it was a blessing in disguise that the Calculator’s intervention forced her to do something about it.
“I’ve had a... leak in security recently. Someone broke into our frequency, changing equipment was necessary.”
“Sounds serious,” Kate commented. “Was it local?”
“Huh. Well, don’t keep me hanging if something like that happens again.” Kate couldn’t have said Oracle was dismissed more clearly if she’d actually spoken the word.
“I might. If you wore the earring.”
“Touché.” On the other side, Kate’s voice carried a smile again.
The smoke swelled in thick, acrid puffs, clouding Kate’s sight.
Black ribbons danced in the corner of her vision, a tangling swarm that she tried to ignore as she groped, inch after soot-blackened inch, toward an escape. The cape weighted her down, dragging against the floor as she crawled.
It had protected her during the explosion, maybe even the only reason she was still alive, that double -- triple? -- nomex blend, but it was heavy, heavier than she was comfortable with at the moment, and-- her hand got caught on a piece of her cape, and she tripped, crumpled all over herself in a boneless slump.
Okay. Her head between her arms, one hand clasped against her mouth, she breathed slowly. The blast of the explosion had torn her breathmask away; it was lost in the burning mess now. She didn’t have her spare because she’d given it to the hostage she’d rescued earlier tonight.
At least the lenses of her mask were still protecting her eyes.
She wasn’t sure how long the structure of the building was going to hold, but it was going to be really interesting to see whether she’d be crushed to death or she’d run out of air first.
Well, it wasn’t the first time the Religion of Crime had lured her into traps that were as blatant as they were inevitable, and it won’t be the first time she survives them either. Now to get to an escape.
The gravel dug into the flesh of her hand - she hadn’t realized the explosion tore her gloves to pieces - and the pressure grew around her lungs, as she forced herself to keep breathing, no matter how bad her urge to cough. The back of her throat was tickling, and she knew that if she started coughing she wouldn’t be able to move fast enough, wracked from head to toe. She already felt like the inside of her lungs were ripping from the inside out, biting her lips so she wouldn’t give in.
At some point her hearing came back, clearing beyond the pounding of her head, or her blood in her ears, she wasn’t sure. She expected the thunder and threatening crackling of chemical fire and weakening girders, not the female voice talking into her ear.
“--ceive me, Batwoman?”
How--right. Oracle’s transmitter earring.
“Yes,” she wheezed back, and hoped Oracle’s mike would pick up on it. She knew from experience it was possible to carry out a conversation without straining her voice, but her living room had rarely seemed less relevant than now.
“First floor down, to the left; there’s a way out.”
Usually it should be her father guiding her to the most efficient path, alerting her to the various exits. She had the Religion of Crime to thank for the fact that he couldn’t, and if she was a little surprised Oracle was already aware of her situation, well - not like she didn’t know Oracle knew her secret identity. Might be a little late for the indignation at being under watch, here.
“The stairs are fifteen meters away,” Oracle said.
Besides, having someone to watch your back was damn useful.
She found the stairs where Oracle had told her, and stumbled down, gripping the rail. Her back was aching, bruises flaring, and her left leg protested every move she made. Please don’t be the knee. Hopefully it was just the aftershock of the blast and she hadn’t messed the articulation up.
“They’re not waiting for you outside,” Oracle reported, “once you’re out you’ll be in the clear. I can send an agent to you.”
Each step was a burst of painful sparks from her knee. Batwoman grit her teeth, her mouth filled with the sticky coppery taste of blood. She must’ve cut her face or the inside of her cheek.
“If I give you the code, can you track down the tracer I put on the lieutenant?”
“Yes,” the reply came at once. “I can send an agent after them to take up from here.”
“No can do, Oracle. This is my fight. I want you to track them down for me, and keep me informed.” The end of the stairs was a benediction.
There was a snort on the other end of the line. Kate’s lips quirked, stretching dry skin. “What is it with you Bat people and giving orders? As long as the Religion of Crime is on Gotham ground, it’s fair game.”
“My fight,” Batwoman insisted. Her voice came out the same as she used when intimidating skels, a deep hiss that bloomed from her chest. “Your agents don’t know them like I do.”
There was a silence on the other end of the line, and Kate stubbornly limped on. She could see it now, a small door half-hidden by the fumes. It was half-hidden behind fragments of crates, but when she squinted it didn’t look like it was blocked.
“You drive a hard bargain,” Oracle said. “Get out and I’ll send someone to back you up. I have just the partner for you.”
Menacing rumbling above Kate distracted her a moment, and she missed a step. She slapped a hand against the wall, barely catching herself before landing over the charred remains of twisted metal bars. She hissed a breath before starting again, carefully placing her feet between the knot of broken iron.
“This is how you do your business, then. Pick a moment of weakness and nag your opponent to death?”
She didn’t keep the peevishness out of her voice. Now she wasn’t actually in danger of dying anymore – not imminently, at least, the building wasn’t so close to crumbling it’d squash her before she made it out, come on, soldier, just a few more steps – she would’ve appreciated if Oracle made herself a little more scarce.
“If you admit this is a moment of weakness,” Oracle remarked, tone as blank as a computer-generated voice. “I’m offering sharing my resources here, and you’re not in a state to finish this by yourself. Not tonight.”
She could still feel the heat of the explosion on her face, and she didn’t close her eyes because the faint buzzing in her ears told her she might topple with vertigo. Oracle was right about her general state.
“Whoever you’re sending me, I’m calling the shots. This isn’t up for negotiation,” she tagged on, just to be sure that got through.
“She’ll be here in ten,” Oracle said.
Kate wasn’t sure if it counted as an agreement, but she had neither the time nor the breath to argue the point; she tugged on a breath and took another step.
The morning overcast was grey with lead, the substance that sent Kate wondering about industrial towns and Gotham’s unemployment rate and semi-abandoned warehouses. The weather never shone on Gotham, not even when there was good news. Probably scared of ruining the gloom-and-doom grip it had on the city.
The lightning in her father’s hospital room wasn’t as poor as the clouds augured. She’d never grow used to seeing him in a hospital bed, but the doctors assured her he’d be out tomorrow, and her stepmother was swearing up and down he’d get much better care at home. She’d left them to passive-aggressively discuss it over in the lobby, excusing herself to slip in and see her father alone.
He was still sleeping; for a man who’d made a life in the service, for his daughter that had always known him to be awake for reveille, it was strange to consider, but not so strange for the night he’d had. He looked tired, but well.
The vase on his bedside table caught her eye as she stepped closer, going for the chair. It wasn’t filled with the extravagant bouquet she’d come to expect from her father’s wife; instead, a single long-stemmed red rose was tipping to the side like a pennant.
Under the vase a card was tucked. It was an ordinary get-well-soon card, rather low on the sparkly scale, though it did display a photograph of two very fluffy kittens in a basket. It wasn’t signed - the rose was signature enough - but featured a phone number.
Kate turned the card in her hands, lingering by her father’s side. His chest was rising and lowering with his breath, peaceful and sound asleep. Lightly, she kissed him on the forehead, and slunk back outside.
The voice that answered wasn’t as exhausted as Kate would’ve imagined anyone would be after three days hunting an evasive-as-liquid cult. If Kate had had to do the research Oracle did for her in that time period...
“Is everything still all right?” Kate wanted to know.
“Oh. Yes,” Oracle said, breezy. “Why wouldn’t it?”
“You left a rose in my father’s hospital room. And a phone number. Excuse me for thinking something might be up.”
“If it were urgent, I’d have contacted you the other way.” It sounded sensible; too much for a single-rose invitation. She prodded.
“So the flower for my father?...”
“A get well gesture, Kate.” Again, Oracle’s tone was tinted with faint, dismissive amusement, clearer now than previously.
“With a phone number.”
There was a short pause, then a laugh. “Maybe it was an invitation for you to call me.”
Kate paused, letting the flow of people part around her, as she tried once again to imagine what Oracle looked like, and once again pushed the thought from her mind as frivolous. It was; but mostly Kate didn’t want to play Oracle’s game. There was no way Oracle didn’t know what was going through Kate’s head when she flirted.
“I wanted to thank you for the past few days,” Oracle continued. She’d toned down the flirtatiousness, but her word choice remained questionable. “We did good work.”
A cell of the Religion of Crime dismantled, and - more importantly - one of their lieutenants alive behind bars, where she’d be questioned and hopefully put on trial. For once, she wasn’t running after the Religion of Crime, attempting to keep up and always falling behind, as they threw terrorist scares at her to keep her floundering. Kate had her doubts whether the woman would talk, and keeping her alive until the trial would be a challenge, but it was a bigger achievement than she’d managed in a long time. And if anyone could make sure their convict wasn’t suicided before trial, Oracle was that person.
“Thank you for sending Black Bat,” Kate replied. “You were right: I do like her, and it wouldn’t have been possible without her. She’d make a good soldier.”
Kate would swear Oracle’s breath caught a moment, though her next sentence wasn’t any more emotional than usual. “I keep forgetting the rest of the world uses that phrase. But yes, history aside, she’s a trooper.”
The fondness in Oracle’s voice wasn’t feigned. More hints at things Kate wasn’t allowed to know. Yet. She changed the subject.
“My father’s fine, by the way. His room is on the fourth floor, and I don’t think the Religion of Crime will try anything against him there. Too public and too small scale.” Besides, they’d given them other things to worry about.
“In any case, if there’s anything suspect I’ll be the first to know. And you’ll be second.”
“Surveillance?... Oracle, do you have cameras in my father’s room?”
“It’s our standard security measure for these cases. They preserve privacy as much as possible, I promise.”
Kate turned it over. The conversation had taken a slight turn toward the surrealist, though if she wanted to be honest, she couldn’t say it was too much of a surprise. She pondered her reaction; maybe she should’ve been angry that Oracle didn’t warn her or her father that loss of privacy while in the hospital was a consequence to allying forces. She couldn’t deny the wave of relief, in the back of her mind, knowing that the most reliable in the business was keeping an eye on her father until he went back home. Mostly, she was amused at the other woman’s thoroughness.
“You’ve been working with Bats a long time, haven’t you?” she concluded.
“Why, Batwoman. Are you trying to discover my identity?”
“Maybe I’m just trying to know more about you. It seems the right thing to do, since you’re buying me flowers.”
Oracle hummed. Kate changed the subject. “Is Black Bat still in Gotham? I’d like to thank her in person.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Kate fancied she could already hear Oracle typing another number, in the other woman’s distraction.
After years of trying to teach Cass to knock before entering, and failure across the board, Babs didn’t startle when Cass appeared, for lack of a more descriptive word, by her elbow.
It helped that years of exposition to Batman has rendered her immune, more or less.
“Saw Batwoman,” Cass announced. She was grinning.
Babs hmmed in answer. She wasn’t not listening; she was just also focusing on Veronica Cale’s latest investments.
“She said thank you,” Cass said, bouncing on the heels of her feet for emphasis. “She said, next time she’ll ask you to send me.”
Once again, Babs congratulated herself on not sending Stephanie or Helena to help Batwoman out. She had the feeling the personality cocktail would be more explosive.
“She gave me this for you,” Cass continued, and she pulled out from under her cape a single flower - a long-stemmed, red rose. There was a card attached, and an hour noted.
8:00 tonight. I doubt you’ll pick me up for dinner, but maybe you won’t chicken out of a phone call. I trust you have my number.